AMRA Proper

By Betsy Loeff

AMR installations may be a mechanical process, but communication and strategy are what keep deployments rolling along. To optimise installation schedules, professional installers offer simple advice: automate where possible, train and train again, leverage installations for fact-finding, and keep customers in the know.

Chances are, utilities using manual processes to record meter change-out information are going to see errors in the data stream.

"Each meter has eight or nine data fields you're recording, and the numbers you're recording are eight digits long," says John Cummings, vice president of Professional Meters Inc. "If you're manually recording meter numbers, meter reads, customer addresses, and then taking it all back to the utility to be keyed into your CIS, there are just too many ways for mistakes to be introduced."

Kirk Prevost, project manager for VSI Meter Services, agrees. "There will always be human error," he says. "And any time there is an error, it will cost you. Someone will have to go back to the job site to fix whatever problems occurred because of a data entry goof."

This is why VSI and other professional installers have moved to barcodes as a means of recording meter data during installations. Most installers use handheld scanners to record meter barcode numbers automatically and upload the data directly into the utility's CIS.

The benefits? Not only is data quickly recorded, but it's more likely to be error-free. Electronic data file transfers also help keep jobs on schedule by automatically updating progress reports and project management systems.

RUN CONTINUOUS TRAINING

Just as problems arise during an installation, so do solutions. And they can be quickly shared among installers when utilities have ongoing training programmes in place.

he VSI team, for instance, holds weekly tailgate meetings to hone skills, identify problems and fixes, share tips and review safety procedures. Along with training, the tailgate meetings offer installers a chance to share experiences. "A tech might say he used a different tool that made the job easier," Prevost says. "Or maybe we'll review procedures to make sure everyone is following the job's specifications."

An added benefit of tailgate meetings is their proximity to job sites. Meeting in the field allows for on-the-job training. What's more, continuous training allows managers to spot installers who are having troubles and re-train them before small procedural problems become big ones.

GRAB OPPORTUNITIES

"AMR installations clean up a utility's customer data," says Jeff Van Ess, business development director for Terasen Utility Services. But it doesn't stop there. AMR installations can also help utilities increase customer knowledge.

Example: "When a water utility is already going out to every meter, there's a great opportunity to populate a GIS," Cummings says. He notes that water utilities can use the AMR installation to survey facilities, checking to see what kind of pipes – lead, plastic or copper – are going into a customer's property. Later, the utility can score points with the Environmental Protection Agency by replacing dangerous lead pipes.

Water utilities can also record the size of the pipes entering a property, the types of meter being used, plumbing violations such as the absence of backflow prevention devices, and other service details. In addition, smart water utilities can use AMR installations to map the location of meter pits. "Water utility workers spend a lot of time trying to find the meter pit, but if installers collect GPS co-ordinates, the utility can map the location of every meter," Cummings says. "Then the utility can use that information to complete service orders more efficiently. Technicians will save time when they have a handy gadget that shows exactly where the pit is on a property."

COMMUNICATE WITH CUSTOMERS

"For every service you're changing out, that's how many opportunities you have for customers to be unhappy," Cummings says. What's more, telling customers about meter change-outs via billing stuffers and letters probably won't be enough communication. "Most people don't read that stuff."

Many installers recommend that utilities place notes on customer doorknobs a few days before the meter change-out is scheduled to take place, although some others avoid door-hangers because they're concerned that the conspicuous notes signal no one is home. If door-hangers are appropriate, Cummings advises utilities to tell customers: "We'll be in your neighbourhood, and your water will be off for about 10 minutes." Cummings adds that if it's a water project, watch to see if the register is spinning before starting the change-out. "No one likes to have a shower interrupted," he says.